The story behind Joke Thieves – the latest comedy phenomenon

It went from sales technique to comedy night to nationwide tour. Will Mars spoke to LiF about creating Joke Thieves – the show where comics perform their own routines, and then eachother’s

Joke Thieves Carl Donnelly
How did the idea come about?

Years ago, I worked overseas and part of my role was to train the sales staff. When I wanted to liven things up I would get experienced team members to swap sales pitches with newer ones. It was a lot of fun and it kept the teams on their feet. That was the seed of the idea for Joke Thieves, but it was quite a few years until I adapted the premise for stand-up. I’m certainly glad that I did because I’ve rarely laughed this much at a stand-up show since changing from audience member to comedian myself.

Will Mars Joke ThievesTell us about the first ever “Joke Thieves”.
I approached a couple of venues to launch the show back in early 2013 but the only promoter to wanted to give it a go was Peter Grahame at Downstairs at the King’s Head in Crouch End. I flyered the whole of Crouch End for 8 hours in the days before the gig and we ended up with an audience of eight people. In fact, it was seven people and Steve Bennett, the Chortle critic. So that’s eight sat in the audience and seven people performing. I had a lot of doubts about the way the show would work, but having put so much thought into the nuances of the show and how it runs, I knew we had to go ahead with the show. It’s like doing new material: sometimes you just need to get it out there, into the ether, and see what comes back. It turned out to be a riotously fun two hours, and Steve Bennett loved it. The next day the phone started ringing, and it’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since.

What are the most memorable JT sets?
The first show had a fantastic twist in it, one that has never been attempted since, and probably wouldn’t work as well ever again. Pat Burtscher was paired with Paul F Taylor, and they were meant to perform as themselves first, then as each other in part two. Paul performed as himself, all going to plan, then Pat came straight on immediately after and did his imitation of Paul, without doing a set as himself. For a moment I thought he had messed it all up, but it turned out he sabotaged the format on purpose, not realising that Paul would then have to perform as Pat performing as Paul. And worst still, he would have to come back to mimic Paul doing Pat doing Paul. Somehow they pulled it off and it was hilarious.

Another highlight for me was Stephen Carlin (below), when he got paired with Abandoman, at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Now, for the purpose of clarity, Stephen is a straight stand-up performer and Abandoman are a two-piece, musically improvised, rap act (I think that’s how they would explain it). It’s the only time a pairing has been made where I have actually feared for one of the performers. Stephen though, calm as you like, came out and rapped to perfection in his own delivery style. He even managed to segue into a version of Killing in the Name by Rage Against The Machine. That got the whole audience singing along, and the lyrics that were massively appropriate to the show.

Stephen Carlin
What feedback do you get from comics after they’ve done Joke Thieves?

I think it would be mad to discuss the feedback I get after the show without including the comments from before the show too. Almost every comedian comes into the show talking about how nervous they are at attempting it. Because they get no preparation for who they will be paired with; that’s decided by the audience once the show is underway. Not only are you turning up to go onstage with no jokes in mind, but you don’t even know what style of jokes you’re going to be attempting. It’s a daunting task to say the least.

Cut to after the show and it’s all change. Everyone, without exception, wants to do the show again. They love the buzz and the challenge of it all. I think there is an element of surprise too, surprise that they actually pulled it off. That’s why comics keep returning to play and that’s why audiences keep coming back to see it. It’s addictive.

I found the atmosphere at a Joke Thieves show is slightly different to that of a normal comedy club – do you agree?
There are two types of show at Joke Thieves in my experience. There are the shows which are made up of predominantly first-time audience members. These are great because they enjoy the stand-up in part one and they are amazed at how versatile everyone is with their improvisation in the second half.

The other kind of show is where we have people in the audience who have been before, so they know what’s coming up later on. So you can get first halves that seem a little more “arts centre” than “comedy club” because people are laughing at the jokes but also thinking about where this could go in part two. Whenever I sense this in the room I know we are in for a great time in the second half because of all the anticipation.

• Joke Thieves is on tour now, including at Leicester Square Theatre on January 22

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